Welcome to woodworking 101, where Forest 2 Home informs our woodworking, DIY, creative and making community on various woodshop techniques and styles! While not the most popular niche of woodworking, woodturning is an incredible workshop art form that dates back to ancient times. Woodturning allows for beautiful curves and soft lines that would otherwise be impossible. Learn all about woodturning, its history, the tools required to wood turn and more!
History of wood turning and history of the lathe
Woodturning is the craft of using a lathe with hand tools to cut a shape that is symmetrical around the axis that a piece of wood is rotating on. As mentioned, woodturning has been around since ancient times, with artifacts dating as early as the 7th century B.C. In order to fully understand the history of woodturning, we must examine the various iterations that the lathe went through before becoming the woodturning tool that it is today.
The Egyptian lathe
The earliest lathe that we are aware of is the Egyptian lathe and its existence is only known thanks to stone carvings. The Egyptian lathe may have been more similar to a potter’s wheel, with speculation around it having a horizontal set up in which tools were used against a piece of wood that stood vertically. The definitive origin of turning is 1300 BC where the Egyptians developed a two-person lathe. One person would turn the wood with a piece of rope, while another would use a sharp tool to cut the woods shape. This invention was then expanded and improved upon first by the Romans, and later the Germans, French and British.
The hand-cranked lathe
Another early mention of the lathe and wood turning was documented in the 11th century by a metalworker named Roger of Helmarshausen. Written in Theohilus “On Divers Arts,” Helmarshausen made mention of a hand-cranked lathe used to turn heavy bell cores. Also mentioned was a pewters lathe, stating it was “set up in the same way as the one on which platters and other wooden vessels are turned.”
The spring-pole lathe
The spring-pole was popular in Medieval Europe, as can be seen in illustrations from the 13th century. With this lathe, wood turners were able to pull tension downwards using a cord attached to a treadle, or peddle. Despite advancements overtime, this lathe held its popularity, being written about throughout the 1600’s, 1700’s and 1800’s and even being used in the 20th century.
Treadle wheel lathe
It is no surprise that inventor and Renaissance man, Leonardo da Vinci set his sights on improving upon the lathes that were available to him at the time. There is a documented Leonardo da Vinci drawing from 1480 depicting the treadle wheel lathe. As the treadle wheel lathe was improved upon overtime, wood turners found that what could be produced on a lathe expanded. The main disadvantage of the treadle wheel lathe was the coordination it took to use, with the lathes speed being solely dependent on how fast or slow the wood turners foot was moving against the treadle.
Lathes of the Industrial Revolution
Lathes came to play a significant role in the Industrial revolution as they could craft parts for other machines. They were developed to the point that power via steam engine and water wheels was used to power the lathe, to both speed up the process and make crafting easier. Throughout the Industrial Revolution, additional advancements through electricity were made to power lathes and further speed up production. With these advancements, the modern lathe came to be.
Different types of lathes
The modern lathe machines are incredibly efficient machines. At their core, lathe machines are used to remove material from a workpiece, but different types of lathes lend better to some projects than others. Different types of lathes include:
- Center lathe: otherwise known as engine lathe machines, these lathes are widely used for turning, end face, grooving, knurling and threading. First developed during the Industrial Revolution, they have withstood the test of time due to their variability in size and settings. Center lathes, or engine lathes, are commonly utilized within the industrial field.
- Speed lathe: also called a wood lathe, this machine can move at high speed despite being operated manually through the utilization of a pulley system. The speed lathe can operate between 1600 RPM and 3600 RPM and is used for rotation, centering, polishing and machining wood.
- Capstan and Turret Lathes: an improved up center lathe (or engine lathe) that is used for high volume, mass production. The Capstan and Turret lathes hexagonal head can be interchanged for each job it needs to accomplish.
- Tool-Room Lathe: utilized due to their ability to produce with a high level of detail and accuracy, these lathes are most commonly used for high precision grinding.
- CNC Lathes: CNC, or computerized numerical control, lathes use a computerized system for high precision and accuracy. They have replaced many other lathes as they are the most advanced type available today.
Difference between spindle and faceplate woodturning?
Spindle woodturning is when the wood is held between centres on the lathe. Examples of this include chair and table legs, stair spindles and more.
Faceplate woodturning is when wood is held on a faceplate or in a chuck. A lathe faceplate circular metal plate that attaches to the end of the lathe spindle to hold the wood piece. Examples of faceplate turning include bowls, platters, vases and more.
Tools for woodturning
While lathes are an integral part of the woodturning art form, additional tools are required to cut and shape your wood. Some tools may be better for spindle woodturning, while others are better for faceplate woodturning but nevertheless, each is important to have as part of your tool kit. These tools include:
- Spindle roughing gouge: used to turn rough wood down to round, this is likely the first tool you will take to a new woodturning project. It features a fairly wide U-shape. It is important to never use a spindle roughing gouge against a bowl as it will compromise the structural integrity and can cause a severe break that may become a safety hazard.
- Shallow fluted gouge: also known simply as a spindle gouge, is not for roughing (or removing large amounts of wood). It is used for detail work on various woodturning projects. Like the spindle roughing gouge, it features a U-shape with a shallow flute.
- Bowl gouge: one of the most important woodturning tools, the bowl gouge is able to remove large amounts of wood efficiently. These gouges feature a V-shape and while they are great for removing large amounts of lumber, they can also be used for detail and finishing.
- Skew chisel: the skew chisel is the perfect tool for planing wood, giving it a smooth finish without additional sanding required, though it can also be used for fine detail. It comes with a sharp, flat tip that resembles a flat head screwdriver. The skew chisel is difficult to master but once learned, its results are notable.
- Parting tool: as the name suggests, this tool is used to part unwanted material and scrap wood from your woodturning piece through a plunge cut. This tool features a sharp angle with a tip that can be driven into the wood to create the division.
- Scraper: commonly used to remove marks left from bowl gauges and woodturning tools. As the name suggests, the scraper “scrapes” using a burr that must be kept sharp to be effective.
Whatever tools you choose to include in your woodturning kit, it is important to always keep them sharp. Sharp tools mitigate frustration and lead to better, cleaner results in your finished piece.
Woodturning safety tips
Like in all woodshop activities, it is important to practice adequate safety procedures in order to ensure a positive experience. Protective equipment should always be worn including eye and face shields to protect yourself from wood kickback that may fly off the lathe, wearing a mask or respiratory system to protect your lungs from the large amount of wood dust that arises from woodturning and wearing hearing protection during extended periods of turning. It is also important to keep in mind that you should never wear loose clothing or jewelry that could get caught in the lathe and long hair should be tied back.
When setting up your lathe, be sure you are doing so in compliance with the instruction manual to comply with any safety warnings outlined. Before beginning to work on your lathe, position yourself on the side that rotates towards you and be sure to check speed settings and guarantee your workpiece is mounted securely. When you need to adjust, are done working, or are leaving your machine, always be sure the lathe has come to a full and complete stop. Regularly check that your workpiece is secure and evaluate for any splits, cracks or defects that could lead to the workpiece coming off the lathe (be sure these checks are made when the lathe is at a full stop). Be diligent with your tools-keeping them sharp will reduce the likelihood of a dangerous catch. Always keep fingers behind the tool rest and use both hands to maintain complete control of tools. When your piece is finished, always remove it from the lathe before sanding or applying finish or polish. It is important to never leave the lathe unattended while it is running.
Woodturning is a rewarding artform but can be dangerous if not approached with the appropriate care. By respecting safety protocols, woodturning can remain a constructive woodworking activity, just like any other workshop project.
Forest 2 Home woodturning projects
Cookie Barker’s #BuiltWithF2H Projects
Rodney Hudson’s brick patterned vase
Scott Drevicky’s woodturning project in progress
Bowl being crafted with Forest 2 Home Ash wood.